It all started back in May when I won the annual lottery for a place in the NY marathon. I had entered with the knowledge that if you are rejected 3 times in a row then you automatically qualify for a place in the 4th year so I was surprised and delighted to get it. On mentioning it to Tony on the last night of the Galway 5k series he remarked very knowingly to Paddy that it is a tough one – very hilly apparently. I started to get worried. No one said anything about hills. I was only running a few years but had managed to plod around the Dublin Marathon last year in 4h42 but I don’t do hills! Dymphna can testify to my inability to run up a very mild incline in Athlone. Only for Julie Gallagher I would never have made it to the top of that awful hill in the Claregalway 5k. I checked the NYRR website to be sure.
‘…No marathon is easy, but the ING New York City Marathon can be even tougher than most because of the course. It's not fast—don't let anyone tell you otherwise…5 bridges each with uphills ranging from ¼ mile to 1 mile in length and downhills of equal length…you will lose more on the uphills than you gain on the downhills…several ascents over remainder of course ranging from ¼ mile to ½ mile in length…last 3 miles rolling hills and an uphill finish!’
I nearly puked with fright. I had chickened out of the Connemara Half marathon for Gods sake!. I needed to practice hills.
After several months spending a lot of money at the physio with a dodgy hamstring last year I took up Bikram Yoga (Hot Yoga in a 40 degree sauna – much loved by Madonna/Gwyneth Paltrow etc) which improved my hamstring and overall flexibility. I can highly recommend it as great cross training. It involves a lot of strengthening postures great for the core, hams, quads and calves and lots of flexibility stuff. The downside is you sweat like a race horse for nearly 2 hours and the particular teacher I go to will not tolerate slackers. This is proper exercise – no humming mantras here on crossed legs. Things were improving though. I haven’t been to a physio all year with the ham since I started it. I even started to see the back of my foot above my head in the mirror in front of me. Think about it! By the end of September I was backward bending with the rest of the Madonna bunch in the class.
Now to tackle the hills. I don’t like speedwork so I adopted a hill training strategy on a regular basis. There is one particular sharp incline between Kilronan and Killeany on Inisimor that will forever have my name on it. I spent most of the Summer in Inismor on the Aran Islands and ran up and down that hill like a madwoman for weeks. At the end of the Summer I returned home but my husband started travelling abroad regularly for work so I couldn’t get out running except at weekends. I bought a treadmill and hammered the hill training mode on it as much as I could – always throwing in an uphill finish whenever I was on it.
All was going very well. Did the Dublin Half Marathon and took 5 minutes off my half marathon time from last year. Ran an extra 5 miles in the Phoenix Park that day too to complete my 18 mile run for that week and then spent another 4 hours walking around the zoo with the kids. Did the Galway Bay Half marathon 7 days later and took another minute off my time. Didn’t feel like I was pushing myself that hard in either race as I treated them as training runs so felt very confident.
Back to the NYRR website for some advice on pacing myself for NY. It said take a recent half marathon time , multiply by 2, add 10 minutes for a flat marathon and another 10 minutes for New York but prepare to be disappointed. That put me at a target of 4h30m. But 4hthirtysomething would be fine. Still better than Dublin last year. Perfect. I wasn’t going to be too ambitious. The night after the Galway Bay Half disaster struck. My oldest girl woke up in the middle of the night – temperature, sore throat, vomiting, awful muscle pain. Uh Oh. The child was perfect when I put her to bed and now she was doing an impression of the scary child in the Exorcist!. She was in terrible pain – not a normal symptom for a virus and I started to get worried. Rang doctor in morning. After answering all the questions she confirmed what I suspected – Swine flu. Kept her in quarantine from the other kids. Husband away as usual. A very kind friend offered to take the other 2 kids to school and get me some stuff from the shops. My mother rang from Galway. My nephew and 10 other kids in his school also had it. So we had got it in Galway. I was raging. I didn’t have to do that Galway Half – it was an extra run for me that wasn’t on my schedule at all.
After 2 days she improved to a level that I would describe as a normal type of flu dose but was still quite sick. Maybe we were over worst. That night I got it. I will spare you the details. Even the kind friend knew enough to stay away now it was obviously spreading. I don’t know what the 3 kids ate, drank, wore or watched on TV for the next few days as I couldn’t even get out of bed. The 2 healthy kids didn’t get to go to school cos I was in no fit state to bring them and we were on our own. Husband came home for the weekend and moved into the spare room. He stocked us up on shopping from supermarket and ran like hell out of the house again to Sweden on the Monday. I don’t blame him.
The 2 healthy kids stayed healthy though. I was miserable and I hadn’t even got to do my 20 mile run yet. New York was looking very dodgy. I foolishly thought I would delay the 20 miler by a few days and would fit it in the following week. No chance. I went back to work after the mandatory 7 days off and regretted it straight away. I was very weak and run down. Chanced a 3 mile walk on the tread after another week and got off it crying. I was in deep trouble now. Ran/walked the most miserable 13 miles on the tread a few days later and I wont even tell you how slow I was. I felt like all my fitness was gone and my whole body still ached with the slightest effort. Spoke to the yoga teacher. She advised me stop running altogether and fit in as many Bikram yoga sessions as I could between then and New York. The sweating alone would help get rid of any of the virus remaining and I would still be working out without straining myself. I agreed and did 4 sessions in a week but in my head had completely written off doing the marathon now. I knew I could defer my entry up to the day before. I was travelling anyway as the flights and hotel were booked so I decided I would just go, have a good weekend and defer till next year.
A few days before the marathon I was feeling a bit better. I ran outside for 6 very slow miles and didn’t feel too bad. One day I was going to do it, the next I wasn’t. I threw my running gear in the laundry basket and tried to think of something else. I would decide when I got there. That was my last run. All I had managed in the last 4 weeks was a 3, a miserable 13 and a 6 miler. My longest run was only 18 miles and that would be 5 weeks before the marathon. We packed for New York.
On the way out when checking the bedroom I found my favourite sports bra lying where I had thrown it a few days previously. Only the females amongst you will appreciate how important the right one is if you are even considering a long run. Jesus, if I had forgotten that what else had I forgotten? (My asthma inhaler as it turned out) I checked the laundry basket. My smelly but vital anti blister, silver thread lined x-socks were still there. I threw them in the bag ( and later wore them in NY – unwashed!)
Got to New York. Avoided all conversation with many other obvious travellers who were doing marathon. I was sulking. Got up first morning in New York and said to hell with 4 and half hours ambitions- I will walk it if all else fails. Went to expo. Enormous. Got to see several of the elite USA marathon team – Ryan Hall (Big US hope to win NY - tiny little fella – not a pick on him!), Brian Sell (US Olympian – gave me his autograph), Meb Kevlezighi (who won it – pity I didn’t get his autograph). Disappointed not to see Paula. 6 of the top 10 men in the race were US runners so it was great to say that I saw them all in the flesh. Bryan bumped into an old work colleague from London he hadn’t seen in 15 years. We visited the Edinburgh marathon stand. My brother in law works for them and we chatted to his colleagues for a while. I entered competitions for every marathon under the sun from Australia to America.
Spent the next 2 days sightseeing. Spent way too much time walking around shopping and taking in the sights. Went to a great show on Broadway and even had a drink that night – first in months. I really wasn’t taking this marathon stuff seriously at all. Looked across from Statue of Liberty to the first bridge from Staten Island and when I saw the incline I nearly fainted. It was miles away and looked steep even from this distance. My legs were even tired going to bed the night before the marathon from all the walking around. I was determined to enjoy the weekend though just in case I didn’t get to run. It was Halloween parade night in New York. It was noisy outside till 4.30am. I had just ticked all the boxes on how not to prepare for a marathon – flu, stress, not enough long runs, too long a taper, jet lag, sore legs and lack of sleep for good measure. I tried to think of positives. I had done a lot more 13 mile runs on my easy weeks than I had done last year . I had lost weight – that was ½ stone less to carry around the course with me. I couldn’t think of any more. I got 1 and half hours sleep. Woke up 6 am on 1st November strangely calm and together. Husband went to get me porridge and proper Irish tea from deli down the road from the hotel. I felt ok. He told me later that night I looked like death warmed up and he really expected me to pull out of the race at some stage. The TV is showing the first buses bringing runners to the start area in Fort Wandsworth on Staten Island. I am glad I wasn’t on a very early transport start. Met up with a girl from Liverpool staying in the same hotel and we agreed the day before to travel down to Staten Island on the ferry together. She was a young girl in her 20’s and this was her first marathon. She was very nervous and I tried to calm her down. What a laugh – me telling someone else it would be ok! We stopped at a deli on the way to the subway as she wanted a bagel and that’s where it started to get entertaining.
We met this strange nutty English bloke with St George crosses painted on his cheeks and glasses that were so big with lenses so thick I was convinced he was still dressed up from Halloween the night before. Those glasses were surely not real. He looked a bit like the comedian Harry Hill but with more hair. He ordered what sounded like a full Irish breakfast in a bagel ‘to go’. After the girl behind the counter suggested to him that might not be a good idea if he was running the marathon he changed his mind and just had bacon and cream cheese. He spotted us and asked us if we knew the way to the subway. He was completely disorganised. I asked him what ferry was he on (transportation to the race started at 5.30 that morning to get everyone there – we were on the 7.30 ferry). ‘Do we get a ferry?’ he asked. How else he thought he was going to cross the water from Manhattan to Staten Island I don’t know. He tagged along anyway. We met another very nice, drop dead gorgeous American beefcake type guy, tall, tanned with the type of teeth only Americans have, at the subway in his running gear. He was from Philly and we all had a great chat. The Yankees were playing the Phillys that weekend. He told us all about it. At least the scenery was improving I thought after the Halloween fright that was the nutty guy.
Subway was delayed with works on the line. We missed our ferry. Liverpool girl started panicking. Again, I was strangely calm. The ferries were running till 8.30 so they were hardly going to throw us off with our numbers on and all our gear if we arrived for the 8am and not the 7,30 am. Calm down I said. ‘Number!’ declared the nutty guy. He then proceeded to take out the number and D tag from its plastic wrapper. We had all put ours on the night before. The D Tag was quite fiddly and involved sticking stuff together and clipping. There had been videos on the website for weeks and demonstrations at the expo on how to put it on. He announced he had trouble reading and couldn’t understand the instructions. I genuinely thought at this point there was a candid camera crew about to appear and we had been set up by some TV programme. I knelt down on the floor of the subway to help him put the D tag on his shoe. The subway was rattling along. Liverpool girl held on to me by the hood of my jacket and nutty guy had his hand on my head so I wouldn’t fall over. I nearly died laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. US beefcake was highly entertained. Nutter tells me he works in the City in London and leads a very disciplined organised life but ‘likes to take it easy when he runs marathons’. I worked in the City as a banker myself for nearly 10 years. When I ask him a few questions he is very vague. Complete Spoofer I think.
The 4 of us got on ferry. Huge crowds. US beefcake guy asked me how we knew the nutty guy. Never met him before I was quick to tell him. Only met hour ago. Nutty guy says he needs something ‘to lubricate his nipples and other parts!’ He is wriggling his eyebrows as he says this and pointing to his crotch. Where I come from in Mervue you could be assaulted for making a statement like that on public transport!..I gave him my Vaseline. He disappeared into the loo. I never saw him again. We laughed the whole way over wondering where he had got to. Ferry person at the other end announces ‘Only 30 miles to go guys and the best news is 4 of them are on a bus’. Hop on bus. Chat to several different nationalities- many, like myself, are on their own having won places. Excitement building.
Arrive at Fort Wandsworth in Staten Island. Think of the biggest concert you have ever been at. Think of the Pope arriving in the Galway racecourse. The logistics of it were impressive. I think it is a military base. Each runner is assigned to a different colour start area. It takes almost 20 minutes to find our start area. Literally thousands of toilets, food stands, free bagels, free tea and coffee, free Gatorade, hot water to mix your own breakfast porridge, baggage trucks, religious tents to pray in, medical tents and more toilets. I had missed mass – it was at 8.15am. I had genuinely intended to go. I needed divine help. Helicopters bringing the elites to the start and news crews circling overhead. We had missed the start of the pro women in wave 1. Those who had got there earlier had to bring sleeping bags and even tents to stay warm. I was as happy we were delayed on the subway as it was cold. My dad is chairman of Mervue United and he had gathered up lots of old disgarded fleeces and trackie bottoms that had been left behind in the dressing rooms for me to wear and throw away at the start. I had a fleece, a jumper, 2 pairs gloves and a rain jacket and fleecy lined trackie bottoms on over my running gear. I look enormous like a telletubby but at least I was warm. I entertained Liverpool girl and this other US guy with my deep heat and diclac cream ritual before the race. For some strange reason I decided to do this in public instead of going into the loo. The loos were too small to try and strip off in anyway. Lets just say my yoga moves came in handy trying to slap it all on inside the lycra leggings!
3 trips to the loo later the gun goes off for wave 2 starters. We were in wave 3. We shout and wave up at the runners on the bridge above us then we get called to our wave start. I takes another 10 minutes to get there. The sheer size of the crowds is impressive. There are several different corrals in 3 separate colour starts in 3 separate wave starts. I am wave 3, orange start, corral D. Squeeze inside corral, no place for claustrophobics here. It is tight. Rock music blasting from speakers. I hear Bruce Springsteen Born to Run ( my fav artist – this is a good sign). AC/DC then. Another trip to the loo inside the corral. They really have the portaloo thing sorted here. No long waits anywhere despite huge crowds. Star Spangled Banner blasts out from speakers. Then the gun goes off. Frank Sinatra singing New York New York. We start moving. High fives from all the race staff as we make our way to the start line on the bridge.
There are 2 levels on the bridge. The orange starters are on the top of the bridge which is quite exposed but offers great views. Manhattan to the north. Liberty and Ellis Island to the right. Brooklyn on the left. The other colours are on the bottom level probably warmer but maybe a tad claustrophobic I think. The 1st mile is a sharp uphill as we make our way half way across the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Start as you mean to go on I say to myself – uphill! It is freezing and this is a sharp hill. I look down at Fort Wandsworth below us. It looks like devastation. All abandoned tents and disgarded clothes as far as the eye can see. Sharp downhill then for 2nd mile. Im careful to watch pace and take it very easy as was warned not try find race pace till mile 3. A bunch of Italians stop at the side of the bridge and start taking photos of each other. They are crazy and in serious danger of causing an accident. There are 43,500 people trying to run across and they stop and take photos. Get into 10min miles pace. Perfect.
Come off bridge and enter Brooklyn. Great atmosphere and enormous crowds. Rock bands/Steel bands/school bands/ orchestras/ choir groups all with loudpeakers and on stages on footpath every few hundred metres. The people are enthusiastic and cheer us along. I wasn’t expecting crowds this early. Meet few Irish guys and chat for a few miles. End up running with 2 lads dressed as nuns. They start to look very hot after a few miles. Throw away the fleece I am wearing but decide to keep the gloves on. If its good enough for Paula – its good enough for me. I feel great and keep banging out the 10min miles. A few more gentle slopes up to 8 miles and then another uphill. The 3 start colours merge at mile 8 – different routes up to then. The road becomes much more crowded. I am feeding of the support of the crowd though – all good. People start shouting at us that we are almost in Queens. Great sound of music now. ‘I like to move it move it’, Hawaii 50, Rolling Stones. Excellent. I keep hearing people shouting for Tricia. She is around me somewhere and her name is obviously more visible than mine. Every time we pass an NYPD station or a FDNY station the cops and firemen are out standing on the side and high fiving us along. There are several firemen running the race and they get great support from the guys in uniform.
Get to half way mark. Check watch. Still doing just over 10 min mile average pace. I know there is another uphill coming up at the Pulaski Bridge into Queens so I stay focused. Head down - keep looking at the ground in front - until the uphill finishes. Welcome to Queens the sign says. Each borough tries to outdo the other in terms of support. Rocky music blasts out. Low rise buildings here. I pass an Irish pub with a balcony. Several people are sitting out drinking cheering everyone on. I shout ‘Up Galway’ to them I get a big roar. The footpaths are full of supporters. NY Times next day says 2 million spectators lined out to watch. I pass several blind people running with guides attached to them. I give them a shout as they have their names on the back. I come across a guy running with full military gear on his back. A TV station reporter jumps in and starts interviewing him as he runs. He has lost friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t know how he is carrying the stuff on his back.
The hell that is the Queensborough Bridge looms at 15 miles. This is murder I have been told. Again keep head down till I get to the top. It is murder. Bridge levels out then downhill section of bridge starts. I look up at the most wonderful view of Manhattan to my left. All the skyscrapers and famous buildings. This is what I had visualised in my head all Summer. There is a wall of noise up ahead – it sounds like machinery but then I realise is a crowd roaring.. We turn right onto 1st avenue and I see the biggest crowd of spectators I have ever seen at a race. Think of the biggest St Patricks day parade coupled with the roar of an all Ireland final. Rockstars don’t get welcomes like this. I could let this go completely to my head. No wonder Usain Bolt acts the eejit the way he does if he gets receptions anything like this. These people are surely going home hoarse the way they are shouting. Coupled with the roaring is the constant ringing of cow bells that every second person seems to be shaking at us. Finally I lose Tricia. People are screaming out my name. I move into the left hand side of the road to feed off the energy of the crowd. Bryan is waiting at mile 17 and I don’t want to miss him. I am flying now. I see Bryan in the crowd and blow him a kiss. He later says he was very surprised to see how good I looked and was disappointed I didn’t stop to chat or take a picture! He will learn yet. Put in great mile between 17 and 18 even though it is yet another uphill. Then pain starts.
My legs were fine despite all the lack of running in the last month but my chest really started to hurt at this point. I was struggling to get breathing right and had a hard pain in between my shoulder blades. The flu was rearing its ugly head as if to say ‘ I haven’t gone away you know – you will not get off that easy!’ I had forgotten my inhaler too – bet Paula Radcliffe didn’t forget hers! I had to slow down as I was starting to panic that I would get an asthma attack. I said several decades of the rosary in my head and kept to the left so that the crowd would pull me along. They did. I calmed down but slowed down. A lovely water sponge station at mile 19 – I soaked myself with 2 of them. Another bridge was coming up just before mile 20. I hadn’t got to run this distance in training before the flu struck so I was a little worried.
Over bridge into the Bronx or ‘DA BRONX’ as the sign said. Lots of cops now on the side of the road and still more cheering and shouting and cow bells. Tricia had definitely been left behind and I kept hearing my name. A cop shouted to me that I looked great. For a few seconds I nearly believed him.
Mile 21 another bridge out f the Bronx and back into Manhattan via Harlem. This bridge had strange yellow foam on it as it was iron/steel underneath and it wasn’t easy to run on. Harlem now. Lots of kids here shouting us on and offering strange chocolate brownie and fruit type things to runners. My friend Tom later told me they do this regularly in Harlem and that the treats are laced with laxatives! I was glad I didn’t take one. More music now on the streets. We pass a church and there is a full gospel choir all dressed up in the robes singing us along. Fantastic. Another church and there is another choir group in robes but this time they are praying for us. The pastor/leader shouts out over a microphone that they are praying for all us ‘bruthers and sistahs’ running. He starts calling out runners names and the choir chorus ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Praise Be’ after him as a response. This is great entertainment and really keeps me alert as I await to see whats around the next corner. I am in pain though. My chest really hurts. I get a bad pain in my left arm. My Garmin is too tight as my hand has swollen. Loosen it – carry on.
We loop around Marcus Garvey Park and hit the first hill of fifth avenue. The crowd is getting really strong again now and we are being roared at from all sides. By mile 23 we are running alongside central park and the hills just keep coming. They are not as steep as earlier but just in the wrong place at the wrong time when your legs are tired. I take my last gel to help me conquer the last few hills. Again I keep left so as to see Bryan again and I see him at mile 24. He looks very emotional. There are people hitting the wall big time all around me now. These last few hilly miles are incredibly tough. People are crying, limping, dragging cramped legs behind them. I glance at the watch for the first time in miles. 4.30 is gone but only just. I am very surprised. I swear I will not let the clock go to 4.40.
I don’t know where I get the strength from but I up the pace for the last 2 miles. I am overtaking people now and feel great again. The pains are gone in my chest. I think I am sprinting – I am! I keep thinking how cool it is that I am running in the same race as all the famous runners, Tulu, Radcliffe etc. It is only later I cop on they are well home, hosed and being massaged by the time I am thinking this! The signs appear 800 yds to go, 400 yds, 200 yds. I see the finish line. It is uphill. Cruel. It feels a bit like the finish to the Craughwell 5k, only longer. I move into the centre of the road. Overtake several people sprinting to finish. I get lots of shouts now. Great finish Karen. Really strong Karen. Pass a blind girl and her 2 guides. These guys were so impressive. Over the line. Look at watch – 4.39.05. I ran 26.62 with all the weaving. Thrilled to bits after the horror of the last month – only 9 minutes outside my original pre flu target.
A Canadian girl hugs me and disappears. After medal, goody bag and heat sheet 20 min walk to get baggage. A race volunteer hands me a New York apple to eat –‘An apple from the Big Apple’ she says. For some reason, our favourite family dinner of pork chops and apple sauce comes into my head. After having the swine flu I think this is hilarious and start giggling like I am demented. My phone is in my bag. There is already a text from Dad with congrats and my finish time. He has tracked myself and Tom all day on website and he was texting Bryan my time splits from Galway.
I later find out Tom also got a chest infection just the week before and he had only stopped antibiotics 3 days before race. He is much more experienced and much faster runner than I will ever be. He walked 5 miles when his chest and legs gave in and was about an hour outside his target. I have great admiration for him finishing cos I know I would not have been in any fit state to take on 26.2 just 3 days after the flu. He has run New York several times and swears never to do another marathon again except New York as all others pale into insignificance. He raises a lot of money every year for charity to do this.
Walk 5 blocks to meet Bryan. Guy offers me $20 for my medal. I mutter some obscenity at him. He looks deranged and says it again. Maybe he didn’t get to finish the race. I cling to medal as I am in no fit state to handle being mugged right now. The crowds on the streets are huge as thousands try to meet up with finishers. Meet Bryan who has dutifully bought me my requested turkey salad sandwich and salty crisps. He is really pleased and delighted I finished so well. I get called over by the subway guy and told I don’t have to pay after running 26.2. I am so impressed by how the New Yorkers embrace the whole spirit of the day. After the biggest steak in New York later that night I make a complete fool of myself and drink copious amounts of Budweiser with Tom and a few others from Galway as we watched the Yankees beat the Phillys. I have not been drunk since the Summer. I make up for it in spades that night!
New York was amazing. I doubt I will ever live to experience another race so eventful. The atmosphere and crowds are like nothing else I have ever seen. They really do make up for how hard the course is. I can understand why Tom says he will never run Dublin again. The very long journey down to the start and the very long cold wait at the start might put a lot of people off though. Most fast runners probably do it for the experience rather than for time. Having said all that, an Irish hockey player Jill Hodgins, whose main sport is hockey not running, ran a 2h52 which is just outside Olympic qualifying time for women. She will be a name to watch out for in Irish elite womens distance running in the future methinks.
I was running NY to celebrate my 40th birthday. Having 2 million spectators cheer me on was brilliant. 2009 is the 40th anniversary of the NY marathon. My fabulous medal has a big 40 on it. My time was good enough to make the New York Times the next day. I am 28,597 behind Keflezighi. Obama is on the front page, Keflezighi is on the front of the sports section and I am on page 21. Cool. I buy 2 copies. My Mam might enjoy reading it after she has finished with the City Tribune on Friday!
While I am delighted I managed to dig so deep on the day I am utterly exhausted after it all. Between swine flu, stress of the final few weeks, jetlag and 26.2 my body needs a serious rest for the next few weeks. I know I shouldn’t have been able to do it so close to being ill but I did. The good training I had got in earlier months obviously stood to me and I have to think that the stamina I developed from working out regularly in the heat at Bikram Yoga also helped get me through. I am very proud of myself but am wrecked. I throw the running gear aside when I get home and vow not to wear it for a long time. That was 3 days ago.
Maybe just maybe I might take the gear out again and show off my NY T shirt at the Athenry 10k at Xmas. I might even wash my socks this time!
P.S. – Liverpool Girl met Nutty Guy at the finish line. He did 4.32. My Vaseline obviously worked for him. I am impressed he managed to find the finish line he was so batty– it takes all sorts! Oink Oink.